The Decline and Fall of the Hillbilly Empire

Back in the late 1990s, I first fell in love with Branson, Missouri.

It was the perfect combination of rugged, natural Ozark scenery, show business, real-country-charm mixed seamlessly with fake-country-charm and a heapin' homestyle serving of garish ugly over-the-top commercialism, dolloped onto your plate like a cup-and-a-half of instant mashed potatoes at an all-you-can eat buffet line, where you're being shoved out of the way by a 300-pound beefy guy wearing a US flag tank top.  

What was not to love?!

Back in the day, Branson drew bus tours of senior citizens from all over America.  There were dozens of live performances a day, from breakfast shows to matinees to dinner shows to after-dinner shows.  I even performed in Branson for a while, doing my interactive comedy murder mysteries, but the only show that sold consistently was Murder in the Morning - an 8:30 am breakfast show (I am not making this up).  

Bacon, eggs and bloodshed.  

"I'll have my victim scrambled, please".  

The show was hard to do at that hour, but when it was over, it was over easy.

You could see over a hundred different live shows in Branson, in the 90s and early 2000s - before the bus tours full of old ladies started (literally) to die off.  The best entertainment back in the day were the original "Jamboree" style shows, especially the Baldknobbers, who started performing in Branson in 1960 (that's the Baldknobbers below).

At its height, Branson boasted of a number of well-known stars from the country and pop music worlds who were performing every night, many of whom owned their own theaters, including Andy Williams, Tony Orlando, Roy Clark, Boxcar Willie, Mel Tillis, Moe Bandy, Glen Campbell, Jim Stafford and comedian Yakov Smirnov, who is the only celebrity left who still performs in Branson - three shows a week, down from eight shows a week in the glory days.

But my favorite by far was Jim Stafford.  Stafford's show - back in the 90s - showcased his great and surreal sense of humor along with his terrific guitar playing, augmented by a full backup band and dancers.  And though these clips are from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, it will give you an idea of how great Jim Stafford was in those days ...

But the last time we saw Jim Stafford in Branson, in what must have been the early 2010s, he had dumped his dancers and live backup band and was performing to pre-recorded tracks.  I think he was even faking his harmonica playing, cupping his hands over his mouth while his original recording of "Shenandoah" played over the sound system.  He also put his two kids in the show - and you can imagine how uninspiring that was.  By, say, 2013, the whole thing had a sad, lackluster threadbare feel to it.

And yet ... the memories!  The laughter!  I saw Jim Stafford's show maybe eight or more times over the years.  My son Colin and I were big fans of the show, and I have many fond memories in the Jim Stafford Theater - which once looked like this ...

Which now looks like this ...

That's me in front of the remains of what used to be the Jim Stafford theater. The bank foreclosed on the theater, auctioned off all of Jim's costumes and show biz memorabilia, and also foreclosed on the Baldknobbers.  Show biz ain't what it used to be in Branson.

Jim Stafford, meanwhile, has divorced his wife (who used to hawk merchandise during the show) and has retired to Florida, his home state.  

And I bring this all up because I really miss Jim Stafford - and I didn't realize that until I saw the Haygoods.  The Haygoods are perhaps Branson's most popular show, here in 2022, and my wife Karen and I saw them this past week.

My best way to describe the Haygoods show is to say that it was like reading a novel written ALL IN CAPITAL LETTERS WITH LOTS OF EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!!  They are clearly very talented musicians, with the eldest brother being an eight-time Missouri state fiddle champion - but he hardly played any fiddle in the show.  Instead of having confidence that their music is good enough to carry a performance, they rely mostly on "schtick" - on spectacle.  It was like watching a movie with nothing but special effects and no story.  Their "first act" was pretty good, but the "second act" (after intermission) was, in Karen's words, "a 45-minute finale".  

I mean, here's one of the brothers playing guitar in a glowing robot costume ...

Such gimmicks are part of what makes Branson Branson - but in Jim Stafford's original show in the 90s, the gimmicks were mixed in with some genuine humor and some impressive music along the way.  Stafford knew he could count on his talent primarily to hold the audience and sell the show - with (in his case) a floating UFO in the audience during intermission being simply the icing on the cake.  But the Haygoods are all icing, no cake.

I'm also suspicious of how much in the way of pre-recorded tracks are used in the Haygoods' show.  The taps in the elaborate tap-dancing number (featuring upside down tap dancing at one point) ...

... sounded much too uniform, too amplified and too studio quality to be real live tapping made by feet.  Maybe I'm wrong, but the whole show sounded like a studio mix - with everything at the same level, by the way.

But even if most of the entertainers have left, sold out, been foreclosed upon or lost confidence in their talent, Branson still has the rugged scenery of the Ozarks, doesn't it?

Well, yes - and you have this at the Top of the Rock ...

... but the owner of Top of the Rock ... and Dogwood Canyon ... and Big Cedar Lodge ... and the Aquarium ... and Bass Pro Shops, John Morris (is he the Mr. Potter of Branson?), promotes himself as a "conservationist", but his idea of conserving nature apparently is to "augment" it, to help it along a bit with some show biz schlock.  His "Dogwood Canyon" is a fake waterfall with a few fake springs along the way.  For $40 per person, you can ride past it in a tram.  Here's a review from Travelocity ...

There are lovely man made waterfalls along this stream but it's not quiet and very busy on the weekends. To take the tram, a truck pulling a wagon of seats was $40, very pricey and along the trail there was a Porta potty we stopped at on the way back but at 1:30pm it was completely up to the top of the seat. Gross!

Faked waterfalls and an overflowing shit hole - today's Branson!  (Plus, of course, Branson Landing, which is a mysteriously popular shopping mall, lined with chain restaurants - and overflowing with its own commercial fecal matter.)

But back to conservation.  A few years back, a natural sinkhole opened up beneath Morris' golf course at Top of the Rock ...

Morris "conserved" this sink hole by pumping out all the ground water and excavating it, multiplying its size (a truck driver fell into the sinkhole in the process and was seriously injured), so that its size continues to grow - but not naturally.  You can ride around the sinkhole in a golf cart for $40 per person, but you have to drive yourself (at least at Dogwood Canyon, you can ride, not drive).  What does "conservationist" John Morris plan for the sinkhole, once it's fully excavated?  "He's not saying," said one of the waiters, "but I'm sure it will be fabulous!"

Yes indeed!  Like a 45-minute finale to blast you out of your seat!

"Mr. Morris is a highly respected corporate leader and a leading conservationist," said our tram driver, when one of the riders asked him about the future of the sinkhole, sounding a bit rehearsed.  Why were we on a tram?  Well, Karen and I spent nearly $200 on dinner for two at John Morris' restaurant at the Top of the Rock - but you don't get the chance to spend your money there, unless you pay $10 to get on to the property - and another $15 to have someone park your car; or you can take the free shuttle after paying the entrance fee, which is what we did.  

I wonder if the Baldknobbers will perform in the sinkhole, once Morris has properly "conserved" it, especially if their new theater gets shut down like their old one did?  Imagine how the pre-recorded tracks that many Branson musicians play to will reverberate among those pillars of ancient rock!

Also, there are some statues of Native Americans here and there at Top of the Rock.  This one strikes me as both beautiful and patronizing at the same time, with just enough melodrama to keep with the schmaltzy Branson tradition ...

The White Man's Burden! - turning the guilt of our oppression of the Red Man into memorabilia.

Another statue (see below) features a Native American with this caption carved into the base: "He died defending his country" - meaning the Ozarks, apparently.  Meaning Top of the Rock, I guess.  I wonder if this Indian came back to life and paid a visit to his Ozark homeland at Top of the Rock near Branson - the homeland that he died defending - if he'd have to pay the $10 entrance fee?

Meanwhile, good musicians still haunt Branson waiting for their big break - which, I think, these days, would be limited to recording backing tracks to be used in a live show.  Here's a guy who performs (for tips only) afternoons at the Uptown Cafe ...

What did he do?  Was he any good?  Well, he had a good voice - and he sang along to Karaoke tracks of various country and pop songs.  Seriously.

Hey, I just had a great idea!  If I can find Karaoke versions of Weird Al songs, that will be my retirement plan!

Branson, here I come!

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